Two hundred and sixty workers at Australia’s largest sawmill are set to be laid off after its operator, Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH), announced the Heyfield mill will close in September 2018 owing to insufficient supply.
State-owned timber supplier VicForests is reducing Heyfield’s supply by half because current levels of logging native forest are unsustainable. ASH has stated that without opening up further areas of protected forest, the mill is unprofitable and will shut down. This will have a disastrous impact on the small town of 2,000 whose residents rely on it.
Victorian mountain ash forests constitute a rich native ecosystem that is home to Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. It has taken decades of hard struggle by activists to safeguard these forests for future generations. Additional logging for hardwood timber would threaten the possum’s survival and open the door for other environmental regulations to be ignored in favour of business interests. Disgracefully, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce suggested revising the protection status of the possum to allow more logging to go ahead.
The response by the union leaders has generally been similar to ASH, calling upon the state government to free up more forest. Unfortunately, rather than drawing out all the issues that affect working class people, a number of union leaders have instead acted like a lobby group for the old growth timber industry. They have campaigned to prop up destructive forestry practices with state subsidies, and thereby pitting forestry workers against those seeking to protect the environment. This approach is a dead end.
Meeting ASH’s demands would by no means secure the financial future of Heyfield’s workers. At the time of writing, 200 employees – including union members – at the lucrative Myrtleford mill are facing lockout by operator Carter Holt Harvey. The company refuses to grant its workers adequate income protection insurance or more than a tiny 2% annual pay rise. When it suits them, these companies feign concern for their workers, but their only real concern is for their shareholders. The interests of the working class are at odds with the interests of these profiteers, and that should be reflected in the union’s approach.
There does not need to be a conflict between protecting the environment and providing quality jobs for all. The Heyfield mill could be used for the processing of newer plantation trees that don’t require the felling of native forest. In fact, ASH approached the Victorian government in March for $40 million to do this. While re-equipping the plant is necessary, such an investment of public money should not simply be handed over for private commercial gain.
Instead, the trade union movement should campaign for the Heyfield mill to be nationalised, and run democratically. This would remove the profit motive from production and allow the community to exercise control over how the mill is run, and how its earnings should be re-invested for the public good. If there was a need to scale back parts of the industry for environmental sustainability this could then be done in a planned way that ensured jobs were created elsewhere.
Socialists argue that the major sectors of the economy should all operate this way. Taking the big banks, mining companies, retail chains and other top monopolies into public hands would unlock billions of dollars in private corporate revenue. This wealth could then be used to fund vital social services, and be invested to create quality public sector jobs in industries like renewable energy. The Gippsland region in particular would immensely benefit from large-scale investment in renewables and all the associated infrastructure that would require.
Capitalism is the common cause driving the grievances of workers and environmentalists alike. It’s in our mutual interests to unite against the domination of the profiteers, and for a society based on common ownership, full employment and environmental sustainability.
The Socialist Party demands:
-Jobs for all! Guaranteed local employment for all workers at Heyfield and elsewhere, with paid retraining where necessary to enter other industries.
-End the logging of native hardwood forests; properly fund wilderness conservation and renewal programs, and fully transition to using plantation timber.
-Bring the timber industry into public ownership, as part of a democratically planned socialist economy to share out the wealth and transform society.
By Jeremy Trott